Toward a nuanced, feminist discussion on Venezuela

Venezuelan woman holding flag in front of riot police

Photo credit: Washington Post

If you’re paying attention to international news, you may have noticed that there’s something happening in Venezuela. And depending on what news sources you’re reading, you might be hearing extremely different things. What you’ll have trouble hearing, though, is a nuanced perspective that doesn’t either dismiss or glorify my homeland’s socialist government. So I guess I’m gonna try to write it.

To be honest, I’m quite hesitant to talk Venezuelan politics publicly. I’ve found people’s reactions to be extremely polarized, and the subject matter too deeply personal for me to easily brush off. But the last week has been so brutal, and the coverage so extremely lacking, that it feels imperative to put fear aside and share the little piece I have to contribute. I’m particularly interested in leftist movements’ ability to hold leftist governments accountable when their actions are oppressive, in our ability to have a nuanced conversation about the ways the folks we prop up as heroes fail us. And I’m interested in talking about how, even in the face of complete failure on major issues of gender equity and justice, leftist projects can remain darlings in the eyes of our social movements.

In the last week, Venezuelans have come out to protest en masse in cities across the country. Depending on where you’re getting your information, people are protesting because they’re wealthy brats who are mad that they’re no longer able to get the official exchange rate for their foreign vacations, or they’re protesting an extremely unstable economy, a lack of basic goods like staple foods and toilet paper, and endemic violence. The truth is, well, both. The fact is, wealthier Venezuelans are mad. Over the last 15 years, since the election of Hugo Chavez, wealth has undergone a massive redistribution – no question a positive thing in an extremely uneven and disparate economic landscape – and the Venezuelan rich have been pretty upset about it; they kinda liked all their money. During this time, there is absolutely no question that the material conditions of poor Venezuelans improved vastly. These things, along with the charisma, guts, and equal parts biting and hilarious political commentary of the late Hugo Chavez have made Venezuela’s leftist project – now led by Chavez’s far less charismatic successor, Nicolás Maduro – the darling of leftist movements worldwide. This has also made Venezuela a major target of unwarranted and undemocratic political intervention by the United States, part of a long history of political intervention in South American left governments.

But at this point, it’s not just wealthy Venezuelans who are upset with the government. The fact is, this socialism (well, “socialism” – maybe more like state capitalism, if you wanna get nerdy about economic systems) hasn’t been all rainbows and glitter. The economy is devastated, and 2013 ended with an official inflation rate of 58%, with inflation on the black market – to which an increasing number of Venezuelans are turning – at rates at least five or six times that. Think about that for a second. What folks were getting paid in January of last year? Now it’s worth 60%-300% less. If they happened to have managed to save any money, well, that was a bad move, as it’s worth a whole lot less now. This is a national phenomenon, affecting everyone, and actually mostly affecting poor folks – a lot of wealthier folks with jobs at multinational corporations have managed to start getting paid in dollars, so it’s a sweet deal for them. This reality is also part of the context of the protests.

Feminist projects have enjoyed mixed success in Venezuela. While there certainly have been some very important gains, this government has left Venezuelan feminists with a lot to be desired. Despite the fact that, much like everywhere else, a lack of access to safe and legal options for terminating a pregnancy affects primarily low-income women, abortion remains illegal. Throughout the last 15 years there has been no major effort to legalize this very common medical procedure, and in fact it has hardly ever been mentioned. I’ve spent a good amount of time with the transcripts of every single Aló Presidente, scouring them for mentions of abortion and coming up short. Nor has there been any mention, much less action, on the terrifyingly high rates of murders of trans women. Protections for queer folks are nearly nonexistent, and let’s not forget that in the midst of his presidential campaign, Nicolás Maduro called his political opponent Henrique Capriles a fag, calling into question his ability to lead for his lack of a wife.

And during last week’s protests, Nicolás Maduro’s government has been extremely oppressive. Venezuela’s government-controlled media has been curiously silent about the protests, which are happening nationwide and are turning out thousands of Venezuelans; the only channel that was covering the marches was pulled off the air. Twitter confirmed that Venezuelan users’ images were being blocked, and there are reports of tactical internet shutdowns and slowdowns by the state telecommunications company, creating virtual blackouts. The police and national guard have been reacting violently, and at least four people have died. And the leader and instigator of the protests, Leopoldo Lopez, has been arrested and charged with terrorism. Now, I share very few politics with Leopoldo Lopez, as well as a good number of the protesters. But I will never defend state violence, censorship, and political repression, and I am frankly shocked at how ready some of the folks in my radical community are to dilute their politics when it is in service of a leftist government. I wish I could express similar shock at the left’s ability to defend a government for whom feminism is not even a remote priority; I’ve long abandoned that fantasy.

What the media doesn’t understand about Venezuela is that it isn’t black and white. Yes, the right – who just cannot deal with the fact that this government has been democratically elected over and over – organized these protests, and yes they want Nicolás Maduro out by any means necessary. Yes, the cops are being oppressive and violent, the state censoring crucial information. Yes, the economy is devastated, and everyone’s mad – let’s not forget that the last election was won very narrowly, so about half of the country is pretty sick of the direction of the current government. And that’s not counting the folks who are sick of the current government but voted for it anyway, seeing as they’ve been the only government in recent memory to even remotely care about Venezuela’s poor. The people of Venezuela are upset for many reasons, and they are marching together, but with very different politics. People everywhere have very complex relationships to politics, their leadership, their countries, and yet this is something the media routinely denies Venezuelans. While the right wing spews claims of dictatorship and Maduro is busy screaming about the upcoming U.S.-backed coup – which, to be very fair, almost certainly happened in 2002, and it is entirely possible that the U.S. remains invested in the country’s destabilization – the people are marching for access to food, for some sense of economic stability. People are marching for their survival. Lots of them are angry bourgeois; a lot of them also are folks who can’t afford to send maids to stand in line for four hours to get basic staples on their table, folks who have spotty access to electricity and water.

Don’t ever get it twisted: the economic instability and violence that Venezuela has been riddled with most distinctly affect Venezuela’s poor. And there are still A LOT of Venezuelans who remain poor, even after improved conditions, even after a new bureaucratic elite has risen. Poor folks who are, despite much lip service from the government about the contributions of indigenous folks and Afro-Venezuelans, disproportionately darker-skinned, indigenous, and Afro-descended. These ills affect Venezuelans in ways that are distinctly gendered. And the hesitancy of the American left to deal with these abuses, with the mixed legacy of Venezuela’s socialism, is stunning. While I understand the impulse to defend a project which the U.S.’s imperialist and anti-socialist agenda has routinely undermined, we’ve got to do better than this.

I’ve seen much of this with my own eyes and through the eyes of my family. I’ve seen the massive housing developments for the previously precariously-housed. I’ve seen my family politically divided – initially very much along predictable class lines, though increasingly most abandoning their hope for this government. I’ve seen them access free health care, and I’ve seen what it has meant for them to live in a system where their pay shrinks every day while costs go up. I’ve heard friends and family tell me about the time(s) they’ve had a gun to their head, and I’ve been caught in the middle of a robbery involving snipers. My cousin was shot at a couple weeks ago. It’s a very distinct kind of pain to see your country crumble from afar, to watch your political dreams slowly degraded and corrupted. And it is a very distinct kind of pain to not be able to access information that reflects the nuanced realities of how it is happening.

So, fears about manarchist backlash aside – you have no idea how white men love to explain me about my country! – I put out my thoughts in the hopes that folks searching for something like this will have something to find.

1bfea3e7449eff65a94e2e55a8b7acda-bpfullVerónica is a leftist who would appreciate a little less glorifying and a little more critical thought.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted February 20, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this!

    I had read this article the other day and was looking for more:

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/17/venezuela-under-attack-again/

    I will have to make my way through the links in your article. It is so difficult to find anything on Venezuela that doesn’t sound like a briefing out of the US State department.

  2. Posted February 20, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  3. Posted February 20, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic article. Finally someone tackling BOTH sides on this, not just “yay protest” or “holy shit it’s CIA”.

  4. Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    To critics of the Venezuelan government, who are on the left:

    I am going to level with you, and be absolutely honest: you’ve convinced me. I get it. I totally get how messed up things have gotten in Venezuela, and how wrong things have gone with the Bolivarian “revolution.” I get that, really, what we thought was a socialist revolution was really just a welfare state, with a few punitive nationalizations here and there, and that the rhetoric of the government and amazing levels of people/community participation we saw early on made us think that the “revolution” could be propelled onward by people power alone, without a plan; basically, that the Venezuelan people could just wing it.

    I get that, despite rising standards of living for the poorest Venezuelans, somehow inflation has gotten to an intolerable level. I get that shortages are getting ridiculous with regards to things like milk and eggs and toilet paper. I get that capital flight is a problem, because big capitalists get “nervous” or “uncertain” when people try to make things in their country a little more egalitarian (we’re dealing with people who would probably react to a gnat burping by immediately dumping all their shares and heading for the hills). I get that the government has failed to take seriously the problem of mismanagement of state/social programs and industries, and allowed a new corrupt “Bolivarian” bourgeoisie to become rich.

    I also get that there’s a major problem with the government reacting very badly to criticisms in the media (although I certainly empathize with their reasons, given said media’s involvement with the 2002 coup, more than I choose to empathize with the big right-wing media’s grievances). And, finally, I get that the government has behaved irresponsibly in response to these protests, allowing followers to resort to violence.

    I get all, in short, that you are saying. It’s good; you’re critical of these things, and you’d like the rest of the left to be more critical as well. You’re absolutely right.

    But what really makes it all the worse for the left, is how articles like this end their sympathetic leftist criticisms with conclusions like “we will have to do better next time,” or “we should be more critical next time,” or “when will we learn?”

    That does not help the left. That does not give us anything to work with. That does not teach us anything worth learning, that we could not learn another less costly way. So, I now present you all with a challenge:

    Tell us SPECIFICALLY what you think we should do differently next time.

    Present us with a detailed, thoroughly explained plan of action, for the next time the left gets another chance somewhere else in the world or later on in Venezuela (probably by the time I’m old enough to collect social security). Call it, I dunno, “The Alternative Socialist Plan to Correct the Flaws of the Bolivarian Revolution”. Any name will do, the content is what counts. Explain to us how all the major problems you have pointed out, like inflation and shortages, could be (if the PSUV remains in power) or could have been (if the “democratic” opposition takes power and appoints a new Pinochet) lessened or solved within the context of a firmly socialist/social-democratic government, seeking to permanently change society in that it becomes a more egalitarian and democratically-managed society at some point in the future. Take note, this plan should avoid the filthy compromises and backpedals of Central-Western European social democracy; it should firmly reject the framing and economic narrative of neoliberalism.

    In short, I want you to explain what the Chavistas should have done instead of what they did, while avoiding selling out their ideals and principles.

    I’m not necessarily asking for a PHD thesis. It can be as long or as short as you want. All I ask is that you be totally honest. Remember, this is a matter of ideological survival; either we “get it right” soon, or we all become a historical footnote. This is something we all, as leftists, should take deadly serious.

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